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What is Ayel?

Pablo Garcia
Pablo Garcia

"Ayel" is a term that refers to an ancient English writ, a judicial order issued by the authority of the king. The writ of ayel — also ayle, aiel or de avo — demanded that someone who took possession of land unlawfully upon the death of its owner return it to a rightful heir. Writs of this type were classified by the relationship of the deceased to the heir making the claim. The writ of ayel indicated that the deceased was the claiming heir’s grandfather. “Ayle” and “ayel” are both most likely derived from an English misspelling of aïeul, the French word for grandfather.

The writ of ayel was usually sought when abatement of the land had occurred. That means that, upon the death of an heir’s ancestor, someone entered the land and took possession before the heir was able to do so. If the heir were to take no action to recover the land within a reasonable time, the wrongdoer could make a claim for the land based on his physical possession and the heir’s neglect in enforcing his rights.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

As with the other ancestral writs, the writ of ayel directed the sheriff of the county in which the land was situated to summon an assize, a kind of court made up of a jury. Unlike modern courts or juries, an assize did not listen to formal evidence. Its verdict was a statement of facts gathered by the members of the assize through their own knowledge.

The jury, drawn from local citizens, would view the land in dispute and decide whether the land had belonged to the ancestor at his death, and whether the claimant of the land was the next heir to take possession of it. After the assize made its factual findings, judges commissioned by the king traveled to the locality to review the findings. If the findings of the assize were in favor of the heir and affirmed by the judges, the land was ordered to be immediately transferred to the heir.

Problems could arise for an heir if a very long time had passed since the wrongdoer took possession of the land, in part because the lapse of time made it more difficult to tell the nature of the ancestor’s affairs at his death. The length of physical possession also strengthened the ability of an heir of the wrongdoer to make a legal claim to the land. If the injured heir’s claim was against the heir of the wrongdoer, the writ of ayel was the sole recourse for regaining possession.

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